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Man behind Oregon's infamous exploding whale dies

An engineer who blew up a whale carcass in Oregon using some 20 cases of dynamite has died, but the biggest bang of his career will live forever in YouTube infamy.

George Thornton, who was called into action by the Oregon Department of Transportation when a 45-foot whale washed up on the beach near Florence, Ore., in 1970, passed away on Sunday, The Oregonian reported. He was 84.

The massive mammal that beached on Oregon's coastline on Nov. 9, 1970, was dead on arrival, and for a few days, local officials, unaccustomed to whales washing up on their shore, struggled with what to do with it. Burying it could result in it being uncovered; cutting it up or burning it were also ruled out because it was so big.

So highway officials called on Oregon Department of Transportation highway engineer Thornton to think of another way to remove the whale, which by that point, was starting to decay. Thornton devised a plan: He and a crew would line the beached beast with dynamite, hit the plunger, and let the pieces of blubber scatter into the water. What was left would be cleaned up by seagulls and crabs, he figured.

"It was unbelievable," former correspondent Paul Linnman, whose news report on the whale explosion has garnered millions of views on YouTube, said of the whale. "The smell would have knocked you over. We went about our business, and got the video we needed, and caught up with Mr. Thornton, and spoke to him about what they thought they were going to do. He was all business, strictly an engineer-type. Only later that day did I find out he got stuck holding the bag that day."

Thornton later complained that the job fell on his shoulders because his co-workers "conveniently" planned to go deer hunting.

 "To be fair, they had plans to go, but this thing made them all the more anxious to go," Thornton said, according to The Oregonian.

The event was captured by cameras on Nov. 12, 1970, for Linnman's news station, Portland affiliate KATU-TV.

"I'm confident that it will work. The only thing is, we're not sure just exactly how much explosives it will take to disintegrate this thing so the scavengers  — seagulls, crabs and whatnot — can clean it up," Thornton, wearing a hard hat, told Linnman on-camera minutes before the explosion. 

It didn't go as planned.

Bystanders were moved back a quarter of a mile before the blast, but were forced to flee as blubber and huge chunks of whale came raining down on them. Parked cars even further from the scene got smashed by pieces of dead whale. No one was hurt, but the small pieces of whale remains were flecked onto anyone in the area.

"The pieces that went into the air were of all sizes. The piece that flattened the car was about coffee-table size. But blubber is so dense that a piece as big as the tip of your finger can be like a bullet and kill you," Linnman said. "I'm so happy and so thankful that nobody got hurt, nobody got killed, because I don't think this thing would have lasted all these years had it been a more serious incident than it was."

To make matters worse, a large section of whale carcass never moved from the blast site at all. In the end, highway crews buried all the pieces and particles of the whale.

"It might be concluded that should a whale ever wash ashore on Lane County again, those in charge will not only remember what to do, they'll certainly remember what not to do," Linnman said at the conclusion of his report on the blast.

Thornton worked for the Oregon Department of Transportation from 1947 until his retirement in December 1984, a spokesman for the department said, and then continued on as a consultant for five years after that. The department never blew up another whale after Thornton's infamous incident, even when 41 whales beached themselves near Florence at the same time in 1979.

"They were cut up and removed," said Don Hamilton, public information officer for the Oregon Department of Transportation. "ODOT has to deal with a lot of interesting incidents involving wildlife. Usually these involve deer and ducks and migrating fish, but on very rare occasions, we have to also deal with issues involving whales. [Thornton's] was not the first and not the last, and it's safe to say we've learned a lot in our ability to address those issues."

The department now works with experts at the Marine biology center at Oregon State University when beached whales come onto shore.

"We have to look at every situation and evaluate it," Hamilton said.

Thornton died in Medford, Ore., Hamilton said.

After the news report aired, Thornton did not stay in touch with Linnman, who is now 66 and working as a news talk radio host. Linnman reached out to Thornton when he wrote a book entitled "The Exploding Whale and Other Remarkable Stories from the Evening News" in 2003 and on various anniversaries of the explosion, but the only response he got from Thornton was: "No, it seems like whenever I talk to the media, it blows up in my face." 

The video of the blast is the sixth-most watched video in history, according to BBC research, Linnman said. 

Linnman decided to "play around a little bit" with his report in a time when television news was very serious, "but the one thing I didn't want to do was make fun of anybody or in any way imply that Mr. Thornton had made this terrible mistake."

He and his cameraman almost didn't go to cover it at all.

"We were just having a good time covering the news. We were chasing cops and politicians and disasters and we were both in our early 20s and it was all about having some exciting times. When I first got assigned to go to the coast to cover the whale, I told the news director at the time, 'I'm one the of the star reporters around here. I'm not going to go cover a dead whale.' He said, 'They're using dynamite.' And I said, 'OK, I'm going.'"